Obituary: Radical Historian George Barnsby, 1919- 2010
by Nasir Khan
Dr George Barnsby, who died on April 11 at the age of 91 in Wolverhampton, was a leading radical activist and historian of the working class movement in the Black Country. Born in London in a working class family, his father died he was only three years old. Now his mother had the sole responsibility to take care of her two infant sons in dire circumstances. The vicissitudes of his early life made George aware that the station in life of many people was determined by their social and economic status.
He left school at 15 and did some ordinary jobs. He showed little interest in politics at that time. However, around the age of eighteen he became a reader of Daily Worker. It was the period when Nazism had emerged as the dominant voice of militarism and in many countries in Europe and the United States fascist parties emerged. Their model was the German Nazi party and their hero Adolf Hitler. When the Second World War started the young George was called up in 1939. At that time, he was 20 year old. When he went to fight for his ‘king and country’ his worldly possessions were two suits and a bicycle. He recalls in his ‘Subversive – One Third of the Autobiography of a Communist’ that for obvious reasons some people had more interest in ‘our country’ than he did!
He was sent to Burma. He experienced there inhumanity of the war and destruction caused by the Japanese. His contact with India and Indian subject to the imperial Raj gave him a broad political insight and awareness of the role of colonialism and and imperialism. The Bengal Famine of 1943-44 occurred under the British rule. It is estimated that around 3 million Indians died from starvation and malnutrition. The Bengal government reacted to the disaster with little efficiency, and refused to stop the flow of rice from Bengal. George was an eye-witness to the apathy of the British rulers towards their subjects. There was no shortage of food in the British quarters either. There are still some hard questions about the role and knowledge of the British Prime Minster Winston Churchill into the affair. For instance, when the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, and Lord Wavell requested him an urgent release of food stocks for India, Churchill responded with a telegram to Wavell asking, if food was so scarce, ‘why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.’
The end of the Second World War saw the defeat of fascism and militarism in Germany and Japan. But no such harm came to the Spanish fascism under Franco. The Soviet Union and its Red Army in the Great Patriotic War had borne the brunt of the war on the Eastern Front. With the Allied victory, the army conscripts returned to their homes. In 1946, George was demobbed, receiving a gratuity of about £100. This sum he used to go the London School of Economics, obtaining a BSc Honours degree there. From Birmingham University he gained an M.A. degree by writing ‘Social Conditions in the Black Country’ and then from the same university he earned a Ph.D. degree on his thesis ‘Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1750 to 1868′. His studies and committment to revolutionary Socialism that wanted to serve the interests of the working had taken the central stage in his life. He was to struggle for these objectives for the rest of his life.
When he came to Wolverhampton in 1954, he became the secretary of the local Communist Party. This was the period when the Cold war was in full swing and in the United States anti-Communist crusade of McCarthyism had become the new credo of the Cold War allies in the West. In Britain, Communists were looked upon as traitors; they were spied upon and their telephones tapped. Obviously, George like other Communists was also regarded as subversive and he had to confront what came his way.
The range of his social, academic and political activities in the Black Country extends over vast areas. He wrote a number of histories and pamphlets on Socialism, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Housing and the Radicals in the Black Country.
One major area of communal activity was around the Bilston College of Further Education. Some teachers of the College and governors realised that many working-class people were excluded from formal institutional education who formed unqualified work force with little basic skills. Among the excluded were a disproportionate number of people from ethnic minority communities, mainly Afro-Caribbean and Asian. George was an active educator and a leading voice in the new approach to uplifting the working class people and providing them with education that met their needs. This progressive approach in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society was to counterbalance the legacy of Enoch Powell and his followers.
When American President George W. Bush and his close ally, Prime Minster Tony Blair, started their genocidal war of aggression against Iraq and the subsequent destruction of Iraq and Iraqis, George steadfastly opposed the imperial war. For him, the Anglo-American war in Iraq was a crime against humanity, a genocide, and its central figures the war criminals who need to be brought to justice. He focused on Bush and Blair and their allies, writing extensively on their policies on his website and informed the populace of the realities of the cover-up of their crimes and their incessant lies.
George Barnsby is survived by his wife Esme and three sons, Billy, Robert and William.